PHNOM PENH • Tens of thousands of Cambodians packed a stadium in Phnom Penh yesterday to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the expulsion of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime - a day Prime Minister Hun Sen called the country's "second birthday".
The ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, installed a reign of terror in 1975 that left two million Cambodians dead from starvation, hard labour, torture and mass executions. It ended on Jan 7, 1979, when Mr Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge cadre, led Vietnamese forces into the capital to expel the murderous regime.
The 66-year-old Prime Minister hailed the day as Cambodia's "second birthday" at an elaborate ceremony in Phnom Penh's Olympic Stadium, where he was joined by traditional Khmer apsara dancers and marching bands.
"Today, we celebrate this ceremony in order to recall unforgotten memories of the most heinous crimes of Pol Pot's group," Mr Hun Sen told the crowd, and thanked Vietnam for saving the country.
A United Nations-backed tribunal found two top Khmer Rouge leaders guilty of genocide in a landmark ruling last November.
The feisty Premier - who has been ruling the country for 33 years - also took the opportunity to revisit history, hitting back at countries that continued supporting the Khmer Rouge after its ouster.
"These countries... boasted about humanitarian and human rights and democracy (but) unjustly blocked (the way)" when the people needed assistance from the international community, he said, without naming any specific nation.
After the Khmer Rouge regime was toppled in 1979, Mr Hun Sen found his Vietnam-backed government caught between geopolitical forces as the United States sought to keep the ousted Khmer Rouge at the table at the UN.
The South-east Asian country in recent years has tilted towards China, thanks to loans for infrastructure and few complaints on human rights issues.
In July last year, Mr Hun Sen's party handily won a much-criticised election, after his government dissolved the country's main opposition group and jailed its leader - effectively turning Cambodia into a one-party state.
Mr Hun Sen yesterday vowed to "deny the actions of extremist opposition politicians and the foreign circle behind them", claiming that they were trying to push Cambodia away from a democratic path.